The part-jest, part-conjecture that there are those who are, indeed, "Afraid of Virginia Woolf" certainly does not apply to either lauded British stage actress, playwright and adapter/screenwriter Eileen Atkins or to Princeton Rep executive producer Anne Reiss. Neither could have anticipated that their common passion for Woolf, which began and has continued over the years since their backstage meeting at McCarter Theater in 1992, would result eight years later with Atkins appearing at a benefit performance for the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival. Isn't that (to steal a section from Woolf's diaries) what "famous friends" are for? But famous and not-so-famous friends are the backbone of the Princeton Rep, which, with the help of this benefit, is endeavoring to raise funds for its summer Shakespeare Festival and its Anya Yatesa Memorial Scholarship for inner-city children.
While continuing her acclaimed performance Off-Broadway in Yasmina Reza's The Unexpected Man, Atkins will reprise, for this benefit, her celebrated portrayal of Woolf in the American premiere of the BBC highlight "A Moment's Liberty," excerpts from a new edition of Virginia Woolf's diaries edited by Anne Olivier Bell. That Woolf, the distaff member of the notable "Bloomsbury group" of writers, would find such an artful interpreter in Atkins is something that surprises even the actress herself. One of the first of many delightful things I discover about Atkins during our chatty phone conversation is how unfamiliar she admits she was with Woolf until she was in her late 20s. "From the age of 19 to almost 29 I almost couldn't get employed. But then this young film producer came to see me after he had been to one thing that I had done and told me he liked what he saw, adding that he thought I looked like Woolf. He said he had written a script about Vita and Virginia," says Atkins recalling how she candidly admitted to him that she didn't know a thing about this woman. "I was badly educated and he was shocked," says Atkins, who, after reading the script, which (by the way) never got off the ground, began in earnest to read everything by Woolf she could get her hands on.
It was quite an undertaking for a young woman who had grown up on a council estate in a poor section of London, the daughter of an under-chauffeur and a mother who worked by day as a seamstress and by night as a barmaid. Atkins' formal education did include three years at the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama.

Her Woolfian journey began she says with "The Waves," which she remembers at the time thinking, "Oh, I can't read this. This is too much." What Atkins says she found immediately "wonderful" was "Mrs. Dalloway," the novel that Atkins would be adapting for the screen 30 years later. "I was in my 30s when I was asked to do a one-person show. I never wanted to do a one-person show, but by that time I had finally gotten through everything including the letters between Woolf and Vita Sackville West." A friend of Atkins convinced her to do a reading ("very much against my will") of his stage version of "A Room of One's Own." "I said to him it will never work."

The evening at the Royal Festival Hall did work, or as Atkins puts it "Why wouldn't it? They were all Virginia Woolf groupies. Now my husband, Ben," she continues, "who is completely non-literary and had never been to the theater much before he met me, turned to me going home and said `it was one of the best things I have ever seen you do and one of the best things I've seen in the theater.'"

Atkins recalls her response: "You must be joking. You don't know a thing about Woolf." To which he retorted: "For damn sure I'm going to know something about her now."

They both learned plenty not only about Woolf but the hazards of filmmaking. Ironically it was making "Mrs. Dalloway" that Atkins says brought her and her husband (the producer) to the brink of bankruptcy. I doubt, after listening to Atkins detail the pitfalls of motion picture producing, that she and Ben will be tempted into producing "Vita And Virginia," the screenplay for which Atkins is currently writing. "We do survive triumphantly," Atkins says adding, after my inquiry, that she is five years clear following chemotherapy for breast cancer. Atkins is pleased she is offered wonderful roles ("I could live without screenwriting, but not without acting"), including that of the mentor in "Wit" directed by Mike Nichols for HBO.

While Atkins keeps insisting that she has "a dull brain" she credits Woolf for looking at the same things and illuminating them for her. When I take exception to her use of the above phrase, as not being possible for an actor of her caliber, Atkins continues to insist how thick she is in some ways. To make her point how the intellect is not at all what acting is about, she talks about a post-curtain question and answer session she recently did with Alan Bates, her co-star in The Unexpected Man. She particularly remembers one question posed by a member of the audience: "How much does the intellect enter into acting?" "Without a beat, we both answered simultaneously: Not at all!"
Whether she is pulling my leg, I'm not sure but Atkins gives credit to her long-standing insomnia for her huge imagination. "When I was a child my mother took me around to doctors because I wouldn't sleep. Their diagnosis was that I had too large an imagination. You have to have a huge imagination and an emotional instinct to be a good actor. It can almost hinder if you are an intellectual," she says, distinctly vindicating her arguably "dull brain."

As expected, our conversation immediately takes an intellectual turn when Atkins unwittingly (and without being the least bit dull) begins to elaborate on the many faces of Woolf, the lecturer ("A Room of One's Own"), the romantic ("Vita and Virginia"), and the diarist ("A Moment's Liberty"). As she points out, "In `A Room' Woolf is lecturing and has a point to make - `that women should be given equal chances with men' - and embroiders on that point brilliantly, ironically. With `Vita,' it was her only attempt at sex, and we see her very vulnerable and ordinary," says Atkins recognizing Woolf's particularly penetrating eye and poetic way of expressing herself.

Atkins says she finds her life illuminated by Woolf. "All I want is to put people on to her wavelength. I want to say it's a bit frightening, but come up here and go with her," she says, stirring it with a bit of dramatic intonation. Atkins draws easily from Woolf, and a passage from the diaries in which Woolf is going out to dinner. "Oh, I look so forward to tonight. To go adventuring on other people's minds." Atkins hopes to inspire us to go adventuring in Woolf's world.

I had to chuckle glancing over Atkins's biography in The Unexpected Man Playbill. I suspect it contains almost as many words as the play that lasts a mere but marvelous 75 minutes. At 59, her career, which began in earnest with the prerequisite classic roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Old Vic, has been filled with a succession of well-received contemporary plays on the West End that brought her on stage with such luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Alec Guinness. If Broadway audiences didn't get to see the actress until 1966 in The Killing of Sister George (a performance that earned her the London's Evening Standard Award), her too-few appearances since have been marked with rapturous approval.
Atkins' first appearance on Broadway in The Killing of Sister George could not be called anything less than an eye-opener, as the young actress was commanded by her bullying lover (played by Beryl Reid) to drink her bath water. Reid deserved the huzzahs for her performance as the take-charge disciplinarian lesbian, but few can forget Atkins' portrayal of the self-absorbed childish, but not so innocent, "Childie." Although few saw the return of Atkins (to great acclaim) to Broadway (co-starring with Ian McKellen and Ian McShane in the short lived Russian play The Promise, she returned four years later to reign for a season as the "virgin queen" in Robert Bolt's Vivat! Vivat! Regina. Together with actress Jean Marsh, Atkins wrote (but did not appear in) the hugely successful "Upstairs, Downstairs," series for the BBC in the early 1970s. In 1989, Atkins appeared Off-Broadway in A Room Of One's Own, an homage to Virginia Woolf. When she reappeared as Woolf in 1995 in her own play, Vita And Virginia, sharing the title with Vanessa Redgrave, savvy audiences knew she had incontestably bonded her dramatic talents with an extraordinary literary figure. Later that same season, Atkins returned for her last Broadway appearance and brought scene-stealing distinction to Indiscretions (the English version of "Les Parents Terribles"), as the level-headed sexually-suspect sister of Kathleen Turner.

In 1992 Atkins was performing A Room of One's Own at the McCarter. Reiss, Princeton Rep's artistic director Victoria Liberatori, and Edna O'Brien, who penned a play called Virginia that was originally written for Atkins, went backstage to see her. "We hit it off immediately," says Reiss, who tried to entice Atkins to return to Princeton to do either Virginia, or John Gabriel Borkman for the company that she and Liberatori had just launched. All Atkins had to do was express a desire -- "One day I'm going to come and do something for the company" -- to keep up with the progress of the company, and an eight-year correspondence between Atkins and Reiss was in the making. The result is this long-awaited appearance by Atkins who said to Reiss, when they met again during the current run of The Unexpected Man, "Let's do it."

Reiss recalls how her passion for Woolf had begun when she and her sister were at UCLA, where they graduated together in 1991 as English majors (with a concentration in English writers). A course given by a visiting professor from Oxford that required reading everything by Woolf provided the inspiration for O'Brien's play and for Reiss to begin collecting first editions of Woolf.

The choice is simple for Reiss and Liberatori. Because the Festival generates no ticket income, the generosity of people like Eileen Atkins and corporate sponsors like Fleet Bank and other individual, state and corporate contributors to the Festival are vital to its survival. "As much as it hurts me," says Reiss, "we are having a silent auction after the show (Jan. 21), with Eileen present, during which I will painfully part with some of my treasures."

The timing for this winter benefit was perfect, says Reiss, who says Atkins will come directly to Princeton following the Sunday matinee and read parts of the diaries that comprise "A Moment's Liberty" with passages about, among others, Vita, Lytton Strachey, Carrington, and, of course, those "famous friends."


Key Subjects: 
Atkins, Eileen; Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville West, Princeton Rep, Vita & Virginia
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
January 2001